For what ails health care, my prescription is the cloud

The cloud is providing some great opportunities for health care, but will that industry take advantage?

There's a lot of talk about how companies can and should take advantage of cloud computing. One industry that could get a serious advantage has, so far, not come up much in that conversation: health care. The truth of the matter is that the health care industry can take a huge edge in the emerging movement to cloud computing, considering how it needs to provide care to patients through federation and analysis of clinical data at some central location.

Let's first consider patient care. Most of us live in very populated centers with well-staffed and well-equipped clinics, having access to medical imaging systems and other diagnostic tools that make diagnosis and treatment more effective. But in rural areas, clinicians typically don't have direct access to the same technology, and in many instances have to send patients miles away for diagnosis and treatment.

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The cost of this technology relative to the low usage due to low population in rural areas is prohibitive. But by leveraging core diagnostic systems, such as medical imaging, that are delivered via the cloud, there is no need for such costly on-site system procurement or operations.

Now what about clinical data analysis? The value here is huge, considering that would let medical professionals more easily aggregate clinical outcome data and better determine which treatments are working and which are not.

Today, doctors have to rely on their own experience, conversations with colleagues, and publications to keep up with current treatments. But by rolling up treatment and outcome data into a central data repository, doctors can use petabytes of information in a centralized, cloud-based database to determine exactly what's working to treat a diagnosed ailment. In other words, doctors would know what worked most of the time for others with the same issues and is very likely to be the best course of treatment. Doctors would be less likely to be using outdated assumptions or study results.

Currently, while the cloud technology required to make this happen is pretty easy to bring together, the core hindrance is a set of policy and people issues. Although they can easily understand the value of collecting this data, hospitals and other treatment facilities are typically wary about providing data that can reflect poorly on their ability to deliver care, such as mortality rates.

Of course, the larger concern is around patient data security and privacy, and a well-planned cloud computing implementation should consider all privacy and compliance issues, such as HIPAA and managing personally identifiable information (PII). One obvious approach: The outcome data should be anonymized. Plus, cloud-stored medical data is likely to be more secure than traditionally stored medical data; I'm pretty sure having my data in a system that uses encryption for data in flight and at rest is much better than storing my medical records in a folder sitting in a office in a strip mall.

Cloud computing provides us with solutions that have the potential to deliver better and more cost-efficient patient care to all. Hopefully, we'll begin to take advantage.

This article, "For what ails health care, my prescription is the cloud," originally appeared at InfoWorld.com. Read more of David Linthicum's Cloud Computing blog and follow the latest developments in cloud computing at InfoWorld.com.

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